The Magic University - Schools of Magic
[Editor's Note: I'm a huge fan of Flores. In fact, after having done all the research for the Magic University, I can probably say that he is my favorite Magic writer of all time. Only edt matches the depth of his contributions to the theoretical side of the game (in my mind), and the rest of his work merely adds to the legend that is michaelj. Besides, Mike's a masterful and unique storyteller, which is the kind of writing I appreciate most of all.
As most writers who have ever received an e-mail from Flores can tell you, our relationship started with Mike informing me that I was wrong. I had never actually interacted with Mike at the time, so the way in which he went about telling me just how full of sh** I was unsettled me. I thought I had done good work, but all Mike wanted to do was point out how I'd screwed up. Mike was just one more jerk with an opinion out there in the world of 1s and 0s. (One could opine that dealing with Flores was good preparation for becoming the Managing Editor of this here site here.)
This"you're wrong" stuff happened multiple times before I got the feeling that amidst all the disagreeing that we were doing, Mike could actually be a likeable guy. I think it was probably Becker's fault (as most things are), that I ended up liking and appreciating Flores, because I kept thinking to myself,"Anybody who's close friends with Becker can't be a complete asshole, right?"
Well, no... he can be, but Mike's a special kind of asshole who actually knows what he's talking about, which is where this story is eventually leading.
Flores may be the greatest historian of the game (and particularly its early writing) on the planet. When I briefly mentioned the Magic University to Ferrett, he said,"Oh God, make sure you contact Flores and Sullivan before you send me anything, as I don't want to get any more long e-mails telling me what a moron I am for publishing your pieces." Thanks for the vote of confidence, chief. I confidently told him that I had already done so, but I did not mention that they had been almost no help whatsoever. (The genes that attract gamers to Magic are the same ones that make them universal slackers). I was undeterred by this initial lack of help though, because I figured if I pestered Mike enough and gave him enough wrong opinions, he'd eventually tell me the right ones.
Of course, as I've already mentioned, his ideas on how to break down the categories of Magic Theory were useless to me, and about the only great piece of advice he had to give me was (paraphrased),"Make sure you include Schools of Magic, or I'll run over your cats and pour sugar down your gas tank." Ah, Mike, what a poet. Anywho, we chatted some more about the Schools and I realized that no matter what I wrote about Rob Hahn's stuff, I'd invariably get it wrong. Always one to deflect criticism onto others, I did my best to convince Mike to write the piece for me, and bludgeoned him with requests until he finally agreed to do so.
That said, getting Flores to do what you want him to do is a pain in the ass matched on this planet only by the ferocity of Geordie Tait's hemorrhoids (or so I'm told). As you can see, Mike's been writing for StarCity for six weeks now, and still had not delivered the requested piece, detailing the usefulness and history of what he calls"The most influential pieces of Magic Theory ever." That is, until today.
So, since Mike finally came correct with the goods, I just wanted to take a moment and say,"Thanks, Mike." For writing the piece, for coming to StarCity, and for being a special asshole. (Which I sincerely mean in the nicest, most reverential sense of the word.) - Knut, a not-so-special asshole]
One of the reasons I came to StarCityGames.com was to write Magic University for our esteemed editor, Ted Knutson. Actually that's not entirely true. The original proposal I sent to the Ferrett, back when he was still the guy in charge of editing the site on a daily basis, was a series where I unearthed an old article, or group of related articles, and sort of introduced them (or re-introduced them) to the StarCity readership. Fans of my old Dojo days will recognize this model as what I used for"Editor's Choice." Back then, it was one of the most popular features we ran. Someday I will probably re-hash all of those articles in this forum, and remind the modern reader how we used to laugh in the old days. For those of you who don't know, this series included the true story of a former Wizards poster boy beating a card thief to a pulp, the successful first appearance of Red Deck Wins in the hands of the triumphant English, and Worth Wollpert.
The twist on this model was going to be an addendum called"Before They Were Stars," which would dredge up an old article by a current Magic superstar (or at least StarCity Feature writer), and point out some silly or hilarious thing that that person posted. An example would be how Jon Becker references Elliot Fertik's Exodus set review stating that Oath of Druids is a weak card.
...which brings us to today's article. Some of you might recall that before I was a StarCity Feature writer in the modern age, I still submitted a letter or two to the Ferrett. Most notable among those was this one. Take it for what you will. It was good in the sense that, at the urging of J. Gary Wise, it prompted this one, a week or two later (but that's not today's topic).
Today's topic is the address of a problem introduced in"You're Doing Magic A Disservice, Ferrett," which is that today's modern Magic reader has no sense of scope or reference. Just as an example, when Ted and Pete elected to turn on the hype machine when I joined the team, speculation was rampant. As will sometimes happen in the anything goes world of Internet message boards, speculation drifted off, and relative comparisons of writer popularity sprang up. Someone in the forums even went so far as to say that John Rizzo and Jamie Wakefield were the most popular Magic writers of all time. Now I'm probably the biggest promoter of Jamie Wakefield that there ever was, but I would never make a claim on that scale. Jamie quit writing before they started printing URLs on booster packs... there's no way that someone as seminal and popular as Jamie could possibly have the same kind of following as, say, Mark Rosewater on Mondays. And for his part, Rizzo only tangentially wrote about Magic.
But this poster still touched on something that probably lies in the hearts of many longtime Magic fans (and I use the term"longtime" fairly loosely here). We all seem to have a picture of a halcyon time when tech was free and formats were better, when Chris Pikula and Randy Buehler wrote epics every week (for little or no remuneration), and we didn't have to worry about Skullclamp, Patriarch's Bidding, Upheaval, Fires of Yavimaya, Ramosian Sergeant, Time Spiral, or Jackal Pup. Never mind that in those days we had to deal with Black Vise and Balance. Like when musing on the American 1950s, we pick and choose our memories. My memories of golden way-back-when are headlined by possibly the most important Magic writer of all time: Robert Hahn.
Rob wrote what was likely the single most influential tournament report of all time. After already having made his name on message boards via Schools of Magic (which we will get to in approximately one paragraph), Robert was already considered by many to be Magic's premiere writer on the Internet. When he went on to qualify for the Pro Tour - and write a report about that feat - he not only graduated (however briefly) to another level, he taught everyone else they could do so as well. This lone act, this concept that one could transition from great writer to Pro Tour player, single-handedly invented Adrian Sullivan, Jamie Wakefield, Eric Taylor, and a host of others, creating the PTQ information culture that many Magic strategy sites draw from as their bread and butter.
But, like I said, it was with Schools of Magic that Rob originally made his name.
The above link is actually a fairly late version of Schools of Magic, the seventh major release according to the Version Notes, but it is representative of Robert's project.
When Schools of Magic first appeared, it was primarily a catalogue of Type I strategies... kind of like what Oscar Tan does today, except that Type I was then almost a relevant format. The single most important idea that Rob gave us was that of archetypes. Even if we could identify decks by color trait, we might not be able to do so accurately. For example, someone might assume that any G/R deck was aggressive by its color choices, even if that deck were nothing but creature removal and mana control (I, for one, never heard of a wholly defensive strategy before Robert's reporting on the Weissman deck). Probably someone else would have popularized the idea of archetypes if Rob hadn't done it, but we should still give him credit: the fact that we can use shorthand like talking about the"Slide v. Bidding matchup" is largely due to this document.
Furthermore, Schools of Magic was way ahead of its time in terms of overall Magic strategy. To give you a frame of reference, in 1999, an article detailing deck redundancy called"We All Learned to Break the Rule of Four"* by some chump was heralded as the best Magic article in years by both Brian Weissman and Randy Buehler, the former saying that if it had been written earlier, he would have done a lot more winning. Robert outlined much the same idea in his"offensive overload" theory in the Schools. The difference is that in my article, the idea was spoon-fed to readers, while in the mid-nineties, Rob (like contemporary Brian Hacker) made readers actually work for their Magic strategy. Similarly in 1999, a collective of some of Magic's finest minds tried to re-write the base notion of card advantage (with a fundamentally different goal than what Oscar and Geordie did a few months back), calculating probabilities with virtual numbers, counting land drops, and comparing big creatures to enchantments (this is back when edt coined Virtual Card Advantage, rather than today's Dinosaur, who nay says complex definitions). Mike Aten (Feature Writer Tim's big bro) assured me that much of the"groundbreaking" work almost done by this group was already there, in the Weissman and Maysonet deck analyses of Schools. It amazes me every time I re-visit Schools how much theory that I thought was"new" was already part of the Magic mind collective, even if it is hard to discern.
Last, but perhaps most importantly, in Schools Rob created a system of writing on the Internet that has changed several people's lives. He was the first scholar/statesman of Magic writing. He created Zvi Mowshowitz and Randy Buehler, gave dignity to the serious approach that they and others take to the subject matter, and helped to pave the way for their career paths later in life; for his part, Rob went to work as the editor of the Duelist for Wizards of the Coast prior to becoming the CEO of Psylum, Inc., the parent company of the"modern" Dojo.
Over time, especially with the advent of the Pro Tour, Rob came to understand two things that were not obvious to him at the beginning:
- Standard was emerging as a popular format... he had to re-think his baseline positions.
- Standard had actual strategies. Previous to this, he thought Standard was just a bunch of creature decks hitting each other with Lightning Bolts and Black Knights.
These were fairly revolutionary ideas for the era. Sets were not released at the same clip that they are today. People were nearer in time to their Mox Sapphires, and actually carried Type I decks. The idea of the metagame was primitive at best. Back then you wouldn't see someone changing his list from week to week with the rise and fall of main-deck Circles or fluctuating numbers of artifact kill. Certainly there was no templating as we understand it today.
More than that, Rob realized that Schools had to become a living document, the Constitution of Magic. He edited and re-edited the text. He published and re-published at least seven times before inspiring Frank Kusumoto to expand his work to co-create The Magic Dojo and The War College. Rob's deck lists in Schools changed as deck lists changed in the real world. In a very immediate way, even if it was not modified for months at a time, Schools of Magic was the only"Decks to Beat" that most players had access to read... I still remember a comment I made when I saw Elliot Fertik's G/W deck at a tournament. He had played a Whirling Dervish, to which I commented,"the Kim deck properly plays Elvish Archers."
Some of what Rob wrote is flat-out wrong. Some of it is wrong, or was wrong only temporarily. But a few weeks ago, when Ted Knutson asked two of his writers about definitions of"speed," in Magic, one of them said there were no seminal ones. None other than Rob's, said the other. That should give you an indication of the depth of theoretical insight Rob had, years before anyone ever knew a Magic University would be useful.
P.S. On the heels of last week's popular bonus section on books, while on the subject of reading old texts, and to celebrate the release of Dark Horse's Michael Chabon Presents the Amazing Adventures of the Escapist #1, here is a little story:
A few weeks after my (now) wife and I started dating, we went to a book store and purchased gifts for one another. Katherine bought me The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, which was then the most recent Pulitzer Prize winner as well as being (ostensibly) principally about the creation of comic books and comic book licensed properties; anyone who knows me well will know that I love comic books even more than Magical cards and that I plan to someday make millions by licensing my comics projects.
So anyway, one night I am in my onetime favorite bar, Japas 43, with friends such as Brook North and altran with said book in my lap. A departing stranger asked me if the book in my lap was very good. I started to lift The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay and go into one of my trademark blah blah blahs, but he stopped me.
"Well, it won the Pulitzer Prize," said I. The stranger did not seem satisfied, so I elaborated:"I haven't really gotten very far in it, so I can't really say."
He and said he hoped I would enjoy it and walked away. After he left, I realized why he had stopped my lifting the book: his picture was on the back cover.
P.P.S. Ted Knutson made me write this article. In fact, he has been begging me since before I joined the SCG family, with more vociferousness perhaps than I bother Kartin' Ken about the articles he owes me. If you hate this article, it is Ted's fault, and you should send hate mail to Mail us at https://sales.starcitygames.com/contactus/contactform.php?emailid=2. If you are indifferent, tell Ted what you would like him to order me to write instead (which I may or may not). If you love it, however, it is yet another masterwork from yours truly.
* Despite anything that might have been said in this article, in hindsight, the Weissman and Kim theories are probably the most interesting, non-intuitive, and potentially lasting theoretical contributions in terms of deck design until PT Rome in 1998.